Peace Through Friendship: Worth a Try

Pdeace ThrioughHere is a brief excerpt from an article by Juliana Schroeder and Jane Risen for The New York Times. Its core thesis is brilliant but simple, as you will soon realize. Today, when there are so many conflicts — sometimes [begin italics] violent [end italics] conflicts — between groups as indicated in our nation’s cities and suburbs as well as in the Middle East and Africa, what to do? I think that Schroeder and Risen are really on to something of immense promise.

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Illustration Credit: Olimpia Zagnoli

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When two groups are in conflict, how can you improve relations between them?

One strategy is to encourage positive personal contact among individuals from each group. If a Catholic and a Protestant in Northern Ireland would only sit down together to talk — learning about one another’s families, hearing about one another’s fears — the encounter, according to this approach, would foster understanding, humanize the enemy and lessen bigotry. The scholarly version of this idea is known as interpersonal contact theory.

It’s an intriguing hypothesis, but does it work in reality? For four years, we studied Seeds of Peace, a program that every year brings together several hundred teenagers from conflict regions such as Israel and the Palestinian territories for a three-week summer camp in Maine. The teenagers sleep, eat and play games together, and engage in daily sessions to talk about the conflict between their groups and their own experiences with it.

We measured how the intervention affected Israelis’ and Palestinians’ relationships with, and attitudes toward, one another. Our results, which will be published in the September issue of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, offer a glimpse of the power of forming a relationship with even just one person from the other side of a conflict.

Hundreds of tests of intergroup contact theory have been conducted in the past and have generally supported it. But most of them have lacked two elements that are critical for assessing it fully.

First, most prior studies involved asking individuals at only one point in time how often they had come in contact with individuals from another group and how they felt about that group. But this approach makes it hard to know whether contact causes positive attitudes or whether people with positive attitudes are simply the ones most likely to engage in contact in the first place.

Second, few prior studies involved groups engaged in active conflict. Personal contact may be effective in making people feel more positive about groups with which they have had little or no experience — say, rural white teenagers encountering their urban black peers — but that does not mean it will be effective for groups facing pervasive violence.

In contrast, our study was longitudinal and conducted with antagonistic groups. The teenagers who attend Seeds of Peace are selected by their government or nominated by teachers and community leaders based solely on their leadership potential and ability to speak English. Despite living so close to one another, before attending camp a majority of the teenagers in our studies had experienced only negative contact with members of the other group.

At the beginning and end of camp, the campers reported their feelings toward the other group, as well as some of their political attitudes and attitudes toward the peace process, rating their opinions on a scale of one to seven.

From pre-camp to post-camp, we found that Israeli and Palestinian teenagers alike reported feeling more positive toward, close with, similar to and trusting of the other side. On average, for all of these questions, the teenagers moved up almost a full point on the scale from where they started, a statistically significant change. They also reported feeling more optimistic about the likelihood of peace and more committed to working for peace, and they expressed a greater intention to participate in other peace intervention programs. Four different sets of campers have consistently shown the same pattern of outcomes.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Juliana Schroeder is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and business, and Jane L. Risen is an associate professor of behavioral science, both at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

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